Lodge searches for balanced aggression
The last time Matt Lodge slipped into a representative jumper, all hell broke loose.
Now as the Wests Tigers tyro suits up for his latest foray on the rep scene, Saturday's clash between the Junior Kangaroos and their Kiwi counterparts in Auckland, the 19-year-old again plans to unleash equal serves of fire and brimstone.
But this time he intends to leave an impression that lasts for all the right reasons.
Five months ago while representing NSW, Lodge threw himself into the fray of the Under 20's Origin clash with a lit fuse and a not so-innocuous four-letter word on his wrist tape. As tensions escalated, Lodge copped 10 minutes in the sin bin as he swung for the fences and Queensland chins, and then a two match suspension once the poor choice of inspiration scrawled on his forearm came to light.
It's a fine line a young front-rower treads between aggro and over-the-top, and one Lodge says he will continue to toe. But for the kid built like a block of inner-city flats, his last game at the junior rep level proved a pretty steep learning curve.
"To be honest, I was just fired up," Lodge tells NRL.com.
"It was just a word for aggression and I was just ready for the game and in that zone. Before the game I wasn't thinking about anything else, and it happened, and it ended up being pretty stupid of me. It's one of those things you learn from.
"I knew that was a mistake after, I learnt that pretty quickly. But at the time I was just really into the game, and it kind of just happened. It took a bit to get over, but you learn from your mistakes, and it definitely won't happen again, I know that much."
The incident and subsequent fallout kicked off a whirlwind couple of months for the 195 cm, 110 kilo enforcer. First, a mid-season move from Melbourne, where he had spent the previous 18 months under the tutelage of Craig Bellamy and his staff, brought him back to more familiar surroundings: the western suburbs of Sin City.
"I liked Melbourne, it was good and I learnt a lot, developed a lot in my game," Lodge says.
"There was no drama there, but I just wanted to come home and be around my family. There's a good group of boys there at the Tigers, I've got a lot of mates there so that made the decision a bit easier."
Within four weeks, a first grade debut for the Tigers followed. Another three games in the top flight, which would have been more were it not for a six-week knee injury, rounded out a rather eventful year for the St. Pat's Blacktown junior.
As a budding prop with a penchant for destruction, to be plying his trade as part of an all-international front-row rotation that features Aaron Woods, Robbie Farah, Keith Galloway and Marty Taupau has Lodge as happy as a pig in the proverbial. This lot wouldn't take a backward step were they standing on the edge of a cliff. Likewise when it comes to Lodge.
So you barely bat an eyelid when the youngster reveals that Woods, also set to make his senior Australian debut when the Four Nations kicks off in Birsbane next week, has taken a special interest in him.
"Woodsy just encourages me to play the way I want to play," Lodge says.
"He's really good with me, stresses that in-your-face style and backs me to do it the way I want to do.
"Hopefully we can have a better year this year, but the front row there; Woodsy's playing Origin and for Australia, Farah's done the same, Keithy's been playing for 10 years, Marty's playing for New Zealand; it's really good to learn off those blokes."
"I just try to take in as much as I can from them, because they're at the level I'd like to get to some day."
Saturday's clash at Auckland's Mt. Smart Stadium looms as another stepping stone to reaching that level. He'll be the only Tiger wearing green and gold, but there will be a few familiar faces in black and white, as Under 20's teammates Manaia Cherrington, Watson Heleta, Lamar Liolevave and Te Maire Martin all turn out for New Zealand. And Lodge is already salivating.
"There's a few of the Tigers boys out there for the Kiwis, and I've already had a word to them," Lodge grins.
"There's no mates out there, but no hard feelings either. There's always been a bit of hate there for the Kiwis. It'll be good, it always looks like a fiery game in the Test matches between the big boys so hopefully it's the same for us.
"Just growing up watching the big boys go at it and get into them. Watching the Aussies give it to the Kiwis was always fun for me. I'm looking forward to it."